Take Shelter, the latest film from Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols, beat me nearly senseless-- and that's saying something considering I was lucky enough to see it at a film festival that also included the likes of Melancholia, The Yellow Sea and Michael. Normally comparing a movie to a physical beat down is a sure sign said film is an unrewarding, heavy-hitting drama that lays it on thick, but that's not the case here.Take Shelter exhausts mind and body with its frightening ability to draw sympathy for its characters.
There's a moment that comes about two-thirds of the way through the film - a simple exchange between Curtis (Michael Shannon) and Samantha (Jessica Chastain) - that found me actively wishing to change what was about to happen through sheer will power, I cared that much about them as people. Not as characters. Not as pawns to manipulate the drama. But as people. In that moment, Nichols' film loosened my grip on reality. The walls of the movie theater vanished; the mundane, lower-class kitchen setting became my entire world and I wholly lost the ability to focus on Shannon and Chastain as actors. All that remained were Curtis and Samantha, a married couple on the precipice of the end of the world.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Beyond the performances and empathy Take Shelter can extract from deep within, what is most admirable about Jeff Nichols' film is its refusal to let Curtis' situation play out like thinly veiled metaphor. Here's a man with a family history of schizophrenia who begins having visions of the apocalypse around the same age his mother succumbed to the disease. As expected, this creeping, "Am I going crazy?" dread begins to rip his home life asunder, but in a graceful move on Nichols' part, he doesn't just let the story end there. If he had, Take Shelter would be, like Melancholia, yet another oppressive film about how insurmountable mental illness is and how it ruins not only the inflicted, but their entire family as well. It wouldn't matter whether Curtis' dreams of the world ending became literal, because at that point the illness has already won and though the world keeps turning as usual for everyone else, it would be over for Curtis.
Mental illness as a metaphor for the end of the world is an easy one to make, and it's certainly the foundation upon which Take Shelter is built, but it doesn't stop with foundation. Nichols and company pretend the metaphor isn't even there and they do so by giving everything in Curtis' world a slow, crushing sense of inevitability. His nightmares aren't just dreams, they're feelings. Yes, that sounds incredibly sappy, but there's no sap when we see Curtis bolt awake from a vision of his dog chewing through his arm, only to have that pain shoot through him for the rest of the day, and that's all because Shannon does such a tremendous job of internalizing Curtis. This isn't a case of an actor just awaking panicked and trying to sooth his forearm by rubbing it. Shannon spends the next portion of the film deeply wounded, as though he'd just been stabbed in the back by a close friend. Every micro-reaction is tenser than normal, every movement an overcompensation to not reveal to others how emasculated Curtis feels because of a silly dream.
Moments like that are the reason Shannon is getting so much Oscar buzz for his role. Sure, he's great when he's exploding in a cafeteria with doomsday prophecy, but it's not those grand moments of release that cement the performance. It's when you can see the bald terror screaming within him while he can barely look his wife in the eyes. And speaking of Curtis' wife, she - both the character and the actress - elevates Take Shelter from a damned fine film to a bona fide masterpiece. It's incredibly refreshing to see a movie tackle this kind of subject matter and not default on marriage. Maybe it's because I'm happily married and have a child myself, but it's amazing to see a film dealing with these kind of consequences where the wife isn't discarded and the sanctity of that relationship isn't mocked.
Curtis is the focus of the movie, but we are tethered to Samantha like an umbilical cord and our ability to empathize with anything in Take Shelter relies on that connection, which is why it hurts like hell when we're in that kitchen watching Curtis struggle to tell Samantha that he's been fired from his job. That moment, that head-in-hands realization that the family will lose their health insurance and their deaf daughter will not be able to get her cochlear implant all because Curtis built a storm shelter because of some stupid dream, is the pair of scissors that threatens to sever that cord. But it doesn't. 'Til death do us part miraculously endures.
And endurance is ultimately what Take Shelter is all about. But, again, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, even the title of the film would be a thin metaphor for having to hunker down when a storm is coming. In Jeff Nichols' hands, however, the forecast of that storm is so expertly told that you never roll your eyes at the film. The editing, the score, the script, the cinematography, the visual effects-- everything that goes on behind the camera is in total harmony with those in front of the camera, as though their story needed to be merely captured, instead of meticulously mounted and framed for presentation. And it's because everything in Take Shelter exists in this delicate balance, no matter how apocalyptic it becomes, nothing ever comes across as forced or heavy handed.
The only part of the film that threatens to throw off that balance is the ending, and frankly it wouldn't be a surprise if it does ruin the otherwise subtle handling of the story for some, but I don't mind. I don't mind the implications of it. I don't mind that it changes the game at the last minute. I don't mind because Curtis and Samantha don't mind. If the characters had been thrown into a sudden panic at the sight of a great storm on the horizon, I'd have certainly felt taken advantage of, but because they still maintain their united composure, the sudden theatricality of it doesn't feel like, well, the end of the world.